Interview with Harry Fehr

You have just completed two years on the Young Artistsí Programme at the Royal Opera House. What has it been like?
Itís been an amazing experience. Itís gone so quickly I havenít really had time to process it all yet. Itís offered me amazing opportunities. The best things for me undoubtedly have been to be able to stage two of my productions in the Linbury Studio. Itís given me profile and experience of working not only with singers but also with designers. Itís allowed me to work in a flexible space, which in the opera world is quite rare because weíre used to working in proscenium theatres. Itís nice to be able to work in a box and try slightly different things. Working with a huge number of different directors of all different types has been an invaluable experience, both in terms of what to do and what not to do. It has really helped me find my own voice, which as a young director is the most important thing, I think.

Was it all very theoretical?
No, not at all! I was doing a job, I was being paid for it, and I was learning on the job. There is a department of four permanent staff directors here and in many ways I was just another member of that department, particularly if I was working on a Main House show as an assistant. I would rehearse the understudies and support the other directors in whatever way they needed to.

In terms of peripheral support, I had a chance to learn German and I went to movement classes. As part of my language learning I travelled to Munich quite a few times. If I had wanted additional things like stagecraft or even music lessons, the programme would have been able to offer that. But the programme is very much about learning on the job, which at this point of my life is what I need.

What did you do before you got on the programme?
Iíve been to university and to drama school. Iíd done three years of freelancing before I got here. I didnít want to go back into academia. I wanted to be doing my job, but learning at the same time. The Young Artistsí Programme has been the best way to do it.

What was the best thing about it?
In one way, the best thing about it was the people I worked with. I talked to a friend of mine who was a repetiteur on the programme a year earlier. She said how spoilt she was after sheíd got used to working with the best people on the programmeÖ And I know that itíll be for me as well. We work with people who are the best in the world. Itís just incredible, in terms of learning, but also in terms of making it an enjoyable process.

The best thing for my work was doing eight shows in the Linbury Studio. Iíd had never done a show with such a big budget and such an amazing support system. With the first show, we had an actress in it doing the non-singing role. When we got to the piano rehearsals, she came on stage after the Hair and Make-up Department had been at her. I went, ďWow, thatís just amazingĒ. Iíve already talked about the highly skilled people involved, and that includes people who create the most fantastic costumes, amazing wigs, fantastic sets and props. Itís just incredible to work with people who can offer so much.

What did you read at university?
I went to the University of Nottingham for three years and I read philosophy. The degree I did was very flexible. My course was almost entirely examination based. I could write a thesis if I wanted to and I didnít. The university concentrated on the 18th century British empiricism: Hume, Locke, Barclay. To be honest, it interests me more now than it ever did when I was at university. I also did a bit of Continental philosophy, particularly Sartre.

While I was there, I got involved in student drama, but not particularly in music. I didnít know what to do with my life Ė most of my contemporaries didnít either, at the age of 21 (laughing). I thought it would be amazing if I could combine my love of theatre with my work. Previously Iíd thought I wouldnít have wanted to do that.

I got into the Mountview Theatre School in North London. I went there for a year to do a practical post-graduate directing course. While I was there, I did a week-long programme for students at the ROH, called Behind the Scenes. It was amazing. I met a director who was looking for an assistant and he offered me a job. I wrote to other people about that and I was offered more work. First as an assistant at the Scottish Opera, then Opera North, then I did a season at English National Opera. Then I applied for a place on the Young Artistsí Programme at the Royal Opera House.

What was the audition like? What did they want from you?
It was just an interview. One applied with a covering letter and a CV in the normal way. I think they interviewed seven or eight of us on one day. I went in as the first person. I was rehearsing that day as well, so I had to re-arrange and come in early for my slot, then go back to ENO where I was rehearsing La clemenza di Tito. It all felt very stressed and rushed but I remember having a very nice conversation with Elaine Padmore, Tisi Dutton who used to run the Young Artistsí Programme, and Jeremy Sutcliffe the Head of Staff Directors.

We just chatted about opera. I came out thinking I had no idea if Iíd got the job but I really enjoyed meeting those people. Then they called me that evening Ė and I had got it! I suppose, in an ideal way, theyíd like to have seen some of my work but there are limited opportunities for doing fringe-type opera. Thereís a lot of fringe theatre in London but not fringe opera. So they had to take a gamble, I suppose.

If by 'fringe' you mean small opera companies, there are quite a few in London and the South East.
I made the decision that I was going to take the route of assisting for big companies. Making contacts is very valuable. However, I now feel that my career needs to take the next step, from assisting to doing my own work. At the moment Iím prepared to do whatever work people give me. Iíve been in contact with some of the smaller companies discussing the next year or so.

You will have a next-to-nothing budgetÖ
I know, I know. A couple of people I had interviews with felt I was taking this massive step down, ĎYou know, we havenít got the support system or the budget like in Covent Garden.í For me, itís making the step from assistant director to a director in order to be able to do my own work. I have spent five years learning an enormous amount and now I need to put it into practice. Small-scale stuff seems to be the best at this stage, because it means I can afford to take risks and it doesnít matter, as far as my career goes, if I make big mistakes. Of course I hope I wouldnít, for the sake of whoever I was working with (laughing) , but yes, one can afford to be a little more daring and try out oneís skills and not feel too constrained that itís got to be a success. It can be a bit restrictive when one is a developing artist.

What are your plans?
Iíve got two or three jobs lined up after I leave here, so Iím quite busy up until April. After that, who knows, a few things are bubbling along and something might come of them.

On the Young Artistsí Programme, they are trying to develop people beyond their time. The Staff Directorsí Department has been incredibly supportive of me. They are keeping open a couple of assisting jobs should I want them next season. The assisting jobs here are very high profile.

What was the first opera you ever saw? Do you come from a musical family?
My father was a music teacher. Both my parents are massively into amateur theatricals. There was always music and theatre going on in my family. I sang in things like Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Dido and Aeneas when I was a kid and there was always music at home.

I was at a boysí state school in Kent and I had an incredibly enlightened music teacher who used to organise visits to English National Opera, which for that kind of school was pretty extraordinary. I saw a huge amount of stuff from the Power House years. Iím not sure exactly what the first one was but I think it was Macbeth, a David Poutney production. Pretty much the only thing I remember about it was a big, green wall and a bed sticking out about half the way upÖ And I remembered being completely baffled, yet at the same time quite intrigued.

Have you got your favourite period in opera?
Not as a director, but as a lover of music. My great passion is Handel, and also Gluck and Mozart. Thatís what I choose to listen to at home. It touches me incredibly profoundly in an intellectual way.

What period in opera would you find most rewarding to stage?
For my style of working, I suppose it would be modern opera. My style is what one might call naturalistic. Itís as naturalistic as one can get in opera. Iím not into big, German-style concepts, with dominant themes through design or stylised form of staging. That doesnít interest me.

Oneís favourite opera is the last one that one has just worked on. I have just done Katya Kabanova which was my first Janacek. I just want to do all of Janacekís work now! I was just completely amazed by it. It was the first experience that Iíve had as an assistant. I looked forward to every night of the production. It was so exciting to get to hear it all again. When you listen to Carmen for the eighth time, it gets a little tiresome, but Janacek is so exciting and so real.

The way we did this production here was that Acts One and Two were played together. At the end of Act One there was always the question if the audience was going to clap or not. Normally they didnít, but on the last night they did. I was surprised. Clapping is the last thing you want to do then! You want to scream, or cry, or throw things around. It just makes one so tense and terrified.

Iíve seen Jenufa, Cunning Little Vixen, The Macropoulos Case and Iím now really looking forward to going back to them and getting to know them better. Having got into the Janacek mode with Katya Kabanova I feel that Iím ready now to tackle the rest.

The 19th century opera passes me by slightly. I understand why it gets people so excited. It is the era of the amazing tune, itís wonderful. I can enjoy some of the Verdi numbers as much as the next man, but I donít find it particularly profound. I donít find it that it touches me either in my heart or in my head. I mean, ok, Handel librettos tend to be a pretty obscure, but they emphasise the key points in a very precise way.

How about Britten?
Thatís an area I want to explore more. Iím finding it terribly exciting. I worked on The Midsummerís Dream here at the Opera House. It was amazingly beautiful. And yes, like every director I want to direct The Turn of the Screw : so many questions, so much to find out.

What other operas would you like to direct?
Definitely Jenufa, definitely Cosi fan tutte. Don Giovanni, but not yet. Itís a directorís graveyard. I think I need to be a more confident practitioner before I can go for that. Iíd like a bit of Gluck, not Orfeo, but one of the later ones, maybe Iphigenie or Armide. Itís very dramatic but very spare at the same time and that appeals to me. Poulenc. Iíd like to do a double bill of La voix humaine and Ehrwartung (laughing). Thatís my kind of thing, a weird thing to do. I keep exploring and trying different things to see what works well for me.

What would you change in the world of opera?
The biggest frustration that directors face in international opera is that there is not enough rehearsal time and not enough pressure on singers to be here when they are meant to be. I know itís a bit naughty of me to say that, but itís true. I think itís agentsí fault. Agents seem to be pushing their singers to take more and more work. It means that big stars just arenít here; theyíre not available for the necessary rehearsal time. As a director I must say that one only achieves really good work when one has the facilities to do so. And that means good support, good performers and having people there with enough time to play. A rehearsal room should be a playroom. We should be able to try things and if they donít work, it doesnít matter Ė because we can try it again next week in a different way. But when youíve only got two or three weeks, every decision has to be right Ė and that terrifies me. I donít know whatís going to work until I try it. I think the houses should be able to schedule to allow people to breathe, to play, to make mistakes, and create the best possible work of art before it goes on stage.

I think the way opera is founded in this country is terribly difficult. At the Royal Opera House, we are neither the American model of sponsorship, nor are we the Continental model of state subsidy; we are kind of a halfway house.

Yes, of course there should be more opera and it should be cheaper, but I donít know if thatís not just wishful thinking; I donít really know how itís possible to achieve those things. I am not one of those people who get massively uptight about access. Opera is an incredibly expensive art form and I wish there were a way to broaden its appeal but I donít know what it is and I donít think anyone has come up with a satisfactory option yet. We should keep trying.

Do you think opera should be elitist because it is expensive to make?
Itís so difficult to say. I would love it of course if the top-price seats were £10 and everyone could come. But then, opera is expensive and needs to be funded in the right way. We wouldnít be able to create the best art possible if it wasnít financed properly. But then again, whatís the point of creating great art if people canít see it? I have to emphasise that the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, all the major UK opera companies which are subsidised, have really good initiatives to try to encourage as wide a variety of people in as possible.

What do you think about half of the Arts money being re-directed to the 2012 Olympics?
(laughing) YesÖ To be honest, I donít know the details about how it is going to affect this place or ENO. All I know is that I donít understand how any organisation is able to plan ahead if they donít know where their money is going to be coming from. I donít know how The Royal Opera is expected to programme for the next five or ten years ahead.

What do you do outside opera, when you are not thinking about directing?
I try to go to the theatre a lot, because there is obviously a lot of overlap with opera. I like to see what practitioners are doing in the theatre world. I try to keep a rich artistic life generally. Iím not big on dance but I try to broaden my horizons. I donít see enough of modern art and I think I should do more of that. Particularly now, the way that different art forms feed each other is becoming more important. Obviously, there is a lot of multimedia use in theatres and in opera these days as well. Iím not sure how that particularly relates to my work but I think itís a very interesting development and therefore I want to keep abreast of whatís going on.

View Harry Fehr's page here.

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